Policymakers have singled out the higher education system as a critical area of vulnerability in American society. Christopher Wray memorably stated before the Senate Judiciary Committee that China now poses a “whole of society” threat to the United States. Reports on the trove of federal investigations into the Chinese theft of research from American medical schools is the latest confirmation of how pervasive the risk is.
Yet there is a fundamental disconnect between the way policymakers in Washington and university administrators across the country think and write about Chinese students in the United States. The proliferation of cultural education programs funded by the Chinese government along with other national security concerns have put policymakers on defense. American government policies and messaging have rightly focused on rooting out malign foreign influences on campuses and developing more targeted student visa screening processes to guard against espionage.
But the grave need for these kinds of solutions has debased the quality of the debate by pushing extreme solutions into the mainstream. Last year, the Trump administration seriously considered banning student visas to Chinese nationals, demonstrating a sharp departure from a principle that the federal government once fully embraced. American universities are uniquely positioned to advance democratic values at home and abroad. Two hallmark American postwar initiatives, the Fulbright Program and the Peace Corps, were created in response to fundamental national security threats and were grounded in the public principle that “people to people” exchanges are not simply diplomatic window dressing, but can play an important role in helping advance American strategic interests abroad.
As Chinese influence campaigns abound in democratic societies today, from having professional basketball players silence the criticism of police brutality in Hong Kong to leveraging Hollywood to advance its position on Taiwan and the South China Sea, it is now more important than ever for policymakers to view universities as one of the most compelling public diplomacy assets of the United States. When on campus, foreign students not only contribute to a more enriching university experience, they also provide the United States the opportunity to discuss human rights and the merits of working in and contributing to a free society. The opportunity is likely to pay even greater dividends when foreign students from countries without strong democratic institutions come away from their studies with improved perspectives of the United States and the values it holds dear.
This outcome is not guaranteed. It takes creating campus environments where international students feel comfortable integrating with student organizations and are not segmented from classroom discussions about politics. American administrators and professors cannot shirk their duties as stewards of free expression and liberal democratic values. Whether a university leader is representing the United States abroad or a professor is lecturing on campus, instead of tiptoeing around Chinese human rights abuses, they should boldly call out such wrongdoings, including arbitrary Chinese government detention of academics. When Harvard University President Larry Bacow recited a verse by a famed Uighur poet at Peking University this year, it was a significant gesture, but more must be done.
Universities may operate as international enterprises, but they ultimately represent American values no matter where they extend. The overseas campuses of American universities have charted a concerning path of restraint and compromise on discussions about values. Administrators of elite universities cannot reasonably claim the institutions they manage have an “unrivaled commitment to openness” if they compromise values with censorship, even when operating in less democratic environments. The latest examples are Columbia University canceling talks on the rights of women at its global center in Beijing, and Yale University making the decision to remove a course about dissent at its campus in Singapore.
Polls of democracies around the world have suggested that most people are dissatisfied with the way democracy is functioning in their countries. Policymakers in government must address national security concerns, and administrators at universities need to keep classroom lights on. With faith in democracy wobbling, however, there is no room for impulsive reactions that silence organic discussions about democratic values on campuses.
If such trends continue, both the government and the academy will lose sight of the role of universities in strengthening societal commitment to democratic ideals, and we will miss a vital opportunity to make the case for a liberal democratic way of life to future generations of students. Only with communication between policymakers and universities beyond the beltway can the United States be positioned to safeguard its value system at home and compete maximally across the ideological domain abroad.
Kristine Lee is an associate fellow for the Asia Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Joshua Fitt is a researcher for the Asia Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.